The New Agenda of the Black Church: Economic Development for Black America; Black Churches Are Flexing Their Economic Muscles to Provide Much Needed Jobs and Businesses - from Shopping Centers to Senior Citizen Housing

By Gite, Lloyd | Black Enterprise, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The New Agenda of the Black Church: Economic Development for Black America; Black Churches Are Flexing Their Economic Muscles to Provide Much Needed Jobs and Businesses - from Shopping Centers to Senior Citizen Housing


Gite, Lloyd, Black Enterprise


Hartford Memorial Baptist Church leaders laid out a plan in 1985 to reclaim their northwest Detroit community. It involved no small endeavor. All the telltale signs of a neighborhood beyond hope were there: doors of once prosperous businesses were shuttered; abandoned buildings sat crumbling for blocks; rats and vermin had overtaken vacant lots and the streets had become a public dumping ground.

Even longtime residents thought only a miracle could restore their neighborhood and provide much needed jobs for its people. Well, if a sound business plan and the means to carry it out qualifies as a miracle, they were right.

Today, that once vacant land is leased to African-American entrepreneurs operating McDonald's and KFC franchises. Several social service agencies and a school also use the land. In August, the church broke ground on a reported $17-million, 80,000-sq.-ft. shopping center that will include a supermarket, drug store and restaurant.

Hartford Memorial also has plans to construct a 40,000-sq-ft. auto-care and commercial center and a multimillion-dollar housing project. Initially, church members paid $500,000 for the vacant properties now under development. Today, the land is believed to be worth more than $5 million.

"Hartford Memorial Baptist Church has established a grand model for other churches to follow," declares Arthur L. Johnson, vice president for university relations at Detroit's Wayne State University. "This is a city where economic resources have been sharply curtailed and white flight has occurred on a massive scale. White business interests have withdrawn and in large measure they have failed to be active partners in the rebuilding of Detroit. Hartford is now a partner."

Rev. Charles Adams, Hartford Memorial's pastor, sees the church's mission and impact from a personal and practical vantage point. "The church needs to concentrate on the business of creating economic institutions," declares Adams. "The issue is jobs. People being laid off through all this corporate downsizing is affecting every black community in this country. The church finds itself in a situation where it is the best continuing, organized entity in the black community for the acquisition and redevelopment of land, the building of business enterprises and the employment of people."

Adams' view of the church as a vehicle for economic empowerment in African-American communities is not novel. Dating back to slavery, the black church has been an epicenter for spurring social, political and economic self-help among its congregants and extending out into the community. Then as now, bad times breed activism. But driving this new movement is a population of pastors and parishioners who are better educated, more sophisticated, and have far more political and eocnomic clout than their predecessors. This generation of church leaders fully recognizes the power of ownership and entrepreneurship. And they realize that, given their collective money and expertise, they are in a unique position to jump-start their communities. "Given our tremendous economic resources, it is possible for the church to create projects that will revitalize our communities, empower our people and revive their spirits," says Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, General Secretary of the National Baptist Convention, USA. Furthermore, says Richardson, who is also pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., "Our churches have millions of dollars invested in banks. We must ensure that banks reinvest in our communities."

Nonbelievers need only check the black churches' collective spreadsheet. A 1981 study by Martin Larson and Stanley Lowell estimated that African-Americans contributed about $1.7 billion to their churches annually. C. Eric Lincoln, author of The Black Church in the African-American Experience and professor of religion and culture at Duke Univesity, places that amount today at roughly $2 billion. …

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